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Interview with Clem Francis

Francis, Clem
Sailors, Greg
Date of Interview: 
Overcoming Obstacles; Relationships with People and Places; Stories and Storytellers
Clem Francis is a retired member of the US Air Force. He recalls some of his training and his stints during the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Greg Sailors interviewed Charlotte residents to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
GS (Greg Sailors): This is Chief Master Sergeant Clem Francis, retired from the US Air Force. Today he is going to talk to us about the Third SS, the U2 Quick and the Blackbird. Go ahead Mr. Francis.
CM (Clem Francis): I'm uh, chief master sergeant, retired, as Rick said. Uh, I spent much of my time in, uh, Special Activities. That's kind of unique in that I, uh, spent, uh, about 16 years of my career in Special Activities. I don't want to go into the Third SS that's Third Strategic Support Squadron. Way back in, uh, 19 and 60, 19 and 52, when I returned from the, uh, Korea, I was assigned to, uh, a unit, which was called C124 Third Strategic Support Squadron, and, uh, one of their primary purposes was to, uh, uh, move atomic weapons to forward locations. And, uh, one of my jobs at the time was training individuals how to put parachutes on a nuclear weapons trigger to, uh, which detonates the atomic bomb itself. But my job was to put parachutes on it and life preservers when we would load it and start to an overseas location. I would, uh, put parachutes on the trigger itself, and we use that if, in case we had to throw the trigger out over land when we was approaching water, we had to put four life preservers on what they call "Mae West" on the trigger, so we just threw it out over water. That was the primary thing we wanted to save [pause] since there wasn't any way to dump a 20-megaton H-bomb off a 30, a C124. If you started to run it back to the elevator, why it would turn the aircraft upside down, so it would if we had trouble the, the bomb itself would end with the aircraft, of course. The rest of us after, uh, after we got the trigger out, why we, uh, would bale out of the aircraft, regardless whether if it was water, over land, air or what, but the bottom did go in. I want to say that there wasn't any danger of going in with the bomb because it would not explode, regardless of how hard it hit the ground. Even if the aircraft was on fire, why it, it would uh, burn and it would melt through a lead component for the radiation to leak out. It would not explode without the trigger. But anyway, uh, [cough] I had a top secret clearance in that, so in 19 and 57 why, uh, they started, uh, I didn't know why they was a running the clearance on me to begin because I thought uh, top secret was the highest you could go in security clearance, and, of course, that I knew, everybody in my neighborhood was asking me, "Well what if they're asking about you?" And even uh, uh, a neighbor in Earl, North Carolina told me that they was a checking with him on why, uh, uh, on why, uh, they was running a clearance on me. I didn't know anything about it until about the time, well, uh, I knew about it when they was running the clearance on me when I had a top secret, so I didn't know anything about what it was all about until I arrived. I got orders to go to Del Rio, Texas, so when I arrived out there, well, I found out I had to go to Laughlin Air Force Base. I was reporting to a certain place in Del Rio, then I had to go to Laughlin Air Force Base, which had just re-opened. It wasn't nothing but a desert, there was sagebrush out on the runway. Anyway, it was pretty soon after I arrived there, there was, some RV57 ( ) arrived, which used crasher suits as a high altitude photography plane, well, I figured that's what it was. I had to start training in course. I had already been to partial pressure suit school in my career field, where I was ( ), so I started training with equipment I had never handled before. I didn't know what it was all about or anything till I had to go out and train hook in a ( ) in a RV57D, which I say now I found it, it was a forerunner to your U2 aircraft. But at the time I arrived there, we didn't have any U2s. We didn't know what a U2 was and nobody knew anything about a U2. But all of a sudden, we was called out to look at what was flying. Well they looked like two big gliders flying over the base and they made a circle and come in and landed and I didn't know whether it was a glider or what it was I hadn't heard the name U2 when I first arrived. Come to find out it was a U2 aircraft but we couldn't, we could not say one word about what it was, nothing to our wives, kids or anybody. OK, well, I started the training in the U2 with the pressure suits and everything and uh, I don't know how long it was I suited and unsuited the pilots and just practiced putting them in the aircraft. Well it got to where there's two or three aircraft arrive in a week and I didn't know where they're flying to. All we done, they never did tell us any place where they was going, even when they left the base to go to somewhere else to stay for a while. We didn't know where they were going. Anyway it got up to, we had about uh, ah, I don't remember the numbers. It's 30 or 40 U2 aircraft, and we'd started the training Chinese pilots, British pilots in them, just all over the, the world that we were allies with. Uh, but one of the things that I am proud of in the U2s I was the life support man ( ) uh. Of course, parachutes and life rafts packed the survival kits, but the U2 kits had what they call a F124 hundred regulator in them which was a highly cued regulator to give the pilots breathing pressure and counter pressure in their capstans of the partial pressure suits in case they had a decompression at high altitudes like 60, 80 thousand feet. You know, you can't, you cannot survive if you don't have any counter pressure, increase breathing pressure in those altitudes. If, if your hand was exposed outside of the pressure suit, your hands would go to about five times the size, if you had a decompression. Well of, of course, needless to say, we had a, we could not make a mistake. So, uh, I skip a lot of things here that I could say, but they chose me and one more guy. That, I was the only 922 which was life support man the other man was a physiological support. Physiological support differs from life support in that he handles the altitude chambers which run pilots up to 80 thousand feet in high altitude chambers, and brings him back down. They have to go through a number of altitude chambers, uh, rides before they start even flying U2s or flying with pressure suits. Of course they already had done the pilot's bit before they done, well, I had to go through altitude chambers myself because I was working with pressure suits. I went to Fort Worth, Texas to go through the altitude chambers with a partial pressure just like I was working with, and when, when all the training was done on the pressure suits and things, I was chosen with a sergeant secretary to go through a school, which, we was in a school about the size of a nice size bathroom. We would go in there. The doors were locked when we went in. Michael Santo of, of Firewell and Company, of Buffalo, New York, they was the one that uh, manufactured, uh, invented the high O2 regulator before that they built fire control on the stove well. Anyway, they come up with this invention of the high O2 regulator. Say it was a tremendous breakthrough for Firewell and Company. Well Mike Santo would start training us in this small room with F24 hundred regulator with we had to tear it down and break it, break it down so many times, and, uh, we had to, uh, set injections on it. It's a little screw which set an injection but the, the breathing pressure tube to the pilot and counter pressure. Each pilot has a different breathing capacity and we would have to, uh, uh, bend then individual over in the pressure suit uh, uh, I'd have to have to set it for, uh, a second, or which was going through school. Then he'd dress me, and, uh, he'd set the injection on me and you, uh, uh, we'd have to bend down and come up with the regulator in the seat kit itself then we'd come up breathing as hard as we could, and you better if uh, the, the, the top portion of your helmet surged, which you had rubber around the neck and the visor closed. And, uh, if it surged and just kept surging it would go "whish," and, like it was going to pull your head off. You'd better get the little screw turned down a little bit because you could damage and individual's lungs very easily. And, well, anyway, needless to say, I had to tear down the regulator and put it back together blindfold. I never did see, and don't know yet why, unless it was just ex, ex, expressing the, the, the need to know what you was a doing and whatever. The part was, there was 158 parts to it and we had to break it down put it back together break it down and never make a mistake. Well, I had taken me about 45 days ( ), and I, both to get through the school, and my wife will tell you today that I turned gray headed within those 45 days, and not real gray but I did turn gray headed. And, uh, but, uh, I would think, at night I couldn't sleep. I would think, "Well, I'm, I'm going to let somebody else go," but then I would think, "My God! They've, they chosen me over about 15 individuals there, to go to through that school and I'm not, I'm not. So I would go back determined, determined to stay with it, and, of course, they trained two more after I had been through, but who did they use to set all the injections? And it was myself and Secretary, the one who went through that school, that, you know, the two that we went. One more thing, uh, ( ) while we were in the school, and Mike Santo was teaching us, we could, uh, take notes, but before we left out of the room Mike would take and tear every one of the notes up that we had and get it down to where you'd rub a pencil over it where you could not read. He would tear the, the paper up and put it in the sand, ashtray sand, set it on a fire and burn it, and then stir the ashes up like that. Now that's how classified it was. And so, well, anyway, uh, they chose me. Also, oh, let me go through this. About, uh, less than two months after uh, uh, we finished the school and was set the injections on pilots for about two months, Firewell and Company come up with an automatic, foolproof uh, uh, that uh, the regulator adjusted itself with a little valve that moved back and forth. It would not burst the lungs, it would not over inflate it, it was so perfect that you needn't even have to open the kit to set the injection. It was uh, automatic. OK, well, that's where I went. They chose me over everybody else, and, of course Sergeant Secretary, he was a different AFC, but he's the one that went through school with, they chose me to go out of the uh, uh, the organization that I was at on the present. Now it's on the same base, but they've set, taken me to field maintenance to run regulators in the ( ) altitude chambers. You had to run them every so often, every 60 days, I believe it was, had to make sure that they was, uh, reading exact pressure like at, uh, eight or 20,000 feet, 30,000, 40, 50, 60, 70,000 feet and you had to record it. If it was off one iota, you had to do some adjusting to the regulator itself. And I thought that was a privilege, and it's still, it's still, I was the only nine two-two Ex-O which was my AFFC Air Force career field. Uh, I was still the one and only nine two-two that had ever set the injection on the regulator. I was the only one that uh, ever run the regulators for the, the test in the miniature altitude chambers. I'm proud of that. So anyway, I worked with the 4080th until 19 and 60, late 1962, well 1963, before I left the 4080th, and I have some things here. Well, if I can find the picture of the (). Just give me a minute if you want to cut it off, I'd, uh, go. Uh, well, of course, you know, () was shot down over Russia in 19 and 60, and then we come with the Cuban Crisis. It was, uh, which we, uh, had Rudolph Anderson in a, a formulation of three U2s. It was from a airbase that flew over Cuba, and of course Rudolph Anderson was shot down. He was the only casualty of the Cuban Crisis, and uh, Kaiser uh, he got the pictures and flew straight to Andrews Air Force in Washington. The CIA unloaded the, the film, taken them to the United Nations the next day. And uh, Adlai Stevenson, which was United Nation's, uh, uh, ambassador to US, US, he sit and told Androv Gromikov, of Russia, that he would sit there until hell froze over, unless he had admitted to having the missiles installed in Cuba, offensive missiles headed for the United States, targeted for the United States. And, of course, Androv Gromikov didn't answer anything, but we had all the information from the films the U2 had taken. Well, the next day, of course, President Kennedy, uh, blockaded Cuba, and, uh, our ships stopped a Russian ship that was headed just outside of Cuba within, and they found missiles on them. Well if, uh, I think this is official history. If they would have kept moving with that ship towards Cuba, it's my understanding that, uh, we come within six minutes of nuclear war because President Kennedy would have launched the missiles uh, on Russia. But anyway, Nikita Khrushchev backed down, turned all of his ships around, and headed back to Russia. Of course we were, this is picture of me, now I was at home, stationed. And I had put uh, five detachments out of U2s. Now I uh, uh, worked with life support, I had to stay there and keep extra gear, extra pressure suits, extra kits, extra parachutes, everything that if I had to in an emergency, that would we'd send these this equipment out to one of those attachments and, and that's what I did. And, of course, uh, this is an outstanding job that uh, General ( ) that uh, he was a colonel at that time, gave me an award for doing that outstanding job, and also this is the same colonel, colonel ( ) that uh, with President Kennedy giving our unit the outstanding unit award, and until today, I've got it all here in the, in the papers that until today, the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing of the U2s, that I was in at that time, is the highest, uh, unit in peace time there are. That still stands today. Uh, of course, I won't go but we, I have just so much I could talk about, but, uh, that is the main things that we, of course, everybody knows now that the, what has happened. Uh, Russia backed down and that's the good thing to do because if they did not and we went to nuclear war, I was trying to get my family out of Del Rio and back to North Carolina, but it happened so fast I didn't get them back. Because if their was a nuclear war then, or if there's nuclear bombs started missiles or anything, I would want the first one to hit me right between the running lights because this just would be a world after a nuclear war and--. So, well I, uh, anyway, uh, uh, this is the three, uh, U2 pilots that, uh, President Kennedy's office in Washington with General May. President Kennedy says to the pilots, says, "Gentlemen you take good pictures." This is the one that went over Cuba and got the pictures they showed in the United Nations and of Rudolph Anderson was shot down, uh, during the flight. He didn't get to go. That's all. And this is a picture of colonel ( ) with some of his officers. And, and we were, uh, the 48th Extension Reconnaissance Wing, this was after the Cuban crisis, was a voted by the Texas legislature that all the members of the 48th Extension Reconnaissance Wing was, uh, the Texas ambassadors. This was the first time that, that had happened in 75 years, that Texas legislature had voted a military unit being Texas ambassadors, so, needed Texas ambassadors. [Laugh] Late 1962, uh, I got orders to go to Washington, DC. I didn't know what I was going for or anything, so was to report to a designated place in Washington. Uh, I went ahead up and it was highly classified, even my orders were classified. So I went to, I went to Washington DC and I didn't go directly to, uh, that, uh, they had told me to on my orders. I went to my sister's that lived there. Her husband was in the service and worked with Intelligence, and I went to their house. They lived just in Maryland just outside of the beltway, Washington DC. So I went to her house and then I called in to this number I was supposed to call when I got there. And I called in and they asked me where I was at. I told them my sister's. They asked a few questions and I answered them and they said, "Get your baggage and leave there immediately, and come to the address you were supposed to when you arrived in Washington." I go ahead and picked the baggage and went to the address I was supposed to. Of course, they questioned me there, why I went. "Well they, they live there, and I, uh, needed a place to stay." They said, "We're paying for a place for you to stay. You don't have to stay there." Well after they checked, they asked me about her husband. After they checked, found out he was in security service with the Air Force, they said, "OK," I could go ahead back and stay there if I wanted and they gave me a certain time to report to the CIA headquarters, which I can say that name, and needless to say, I was up there for a week and I, I can't say anything else what happened or anything. But I didn't know what in God's world I was there for. I, I just didn't I was just puzzled. Of course I came back, after a week, to Laughlin Air Force Base, and then shortly thereafter I got orders I could bring my family and everything to Las Vegas, Nevada and I couldn't tell my wife or anything about why I was going there because I didn't know. And so, we moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, and I reported, just like I did in Washington, to a certain address in downtown Las Vegas. They told me that, uh, that I would be called in a guy at the end for me to meet. It was another GI and said I would go with him on Monday morning to a certain location, and we never was for many, many years, we could not even mention the location, but now I have the declassification of it, Roadrunner's International right there in it's authorized, and it tells all about the A-12 Blackbird crew that I was going to in early 1963 and I guess it was the most classified thing that there was at that time in the United States but when I got out and gone out found out what was going into and I looked at one of those birds, there was actually bile come into my mouth. Now that's how, uh, I stay buckled in. We had full pressure suits there in the aircraft just, just like the astronauts wore, except ours was totally silver, silver uh, boot and everything, to reflect heat, of course. I started immediately, uh, uh, training into that from the other two guys that was at the location. They had already had their training in the full pressure suits and it taken me a while if you go into full pressure suits. Different, totally different types parachutes and in an bird that flies, uh, three times the speed of sound, over 22,000 miles an hour. You can't even imagine that and I really can't get over, as, as many pilots that I put in that aircraft, and know, and seen them come in ( ) and go walk up the plank to, to get him out of the aircraft and he waits for me to get him out. And then he looks. When I pull, when he pulls the canopy for me to start getting him out, he points to two instruments on the left side of the aircraft that had actually melted during the flight. And one of our jobs was to measure, uh, heat on the top of their helmet, which was a piece to tape that went across there and put out by NASA that, uh, there was different spots of paint on it. And the spots of paint would change every hundred degrees, it might be red, it change to blue. Where, I didn't know what the code was, but, of course, I'd take it and turn it in to individuals back at life support but I know that I have measured them and they told me he had 300 degrees on the top of his head. But you have to remember, he had a tremendous cooling system going in to his full pressure suit and going out to the inside of his hands channels and then down to his feet he's got channels pumping cold air down there all the time and then comes back and exhausts out the outside of the control. There's so much you could talk about on that I'll just skip that. But uh, think about it. You're putting a man in there it's risking his life, those tests like what we had Lockheed Aircraft individuals. Test pilots that flew them first, like Lou ( ), I could name all of them really, but they test the birds first, and then our CIA pilots started flying them. We were the ones handled, our CIA pilots, uh, anyway, uh, we set all kinds of records step by step. Only lost two, three aircraft while we was there, and, uh, test phase. But we only lost one CIA pilot there and really why, uh, there's a modification that we shouldn't have made. You live and learn, you know, when you test, uh, aircraft. Uh, well it's, uh, the speeds got faster, faster, and faster until we deployed overseas. In the meantime the Air Force bought the SR71, now the A-12, that we were working with the CIA. It was one space aircraft, one-man aircraft he operated all the cameras and everything and flew the aircraft. The SR71 was a two space aircraft which you had a pilot and a systems operator in the back seat give the pilot a little bit of a break from what the A-12 CIA version of the plane had. Anyway, we deployed and I can tell now be, because of this that, that, that, uh, we deployed to Kadina, Okinawa, and this was in 1968. And I will tell you about one flight that we made over there that I hooked up. One individual Mr. Weeks had his name here on page six, and he made the flight over up to the edge of China, over North Korea extreme north, back over the middle and back down south. Got the pictures of the Pueblo, when the North Koreans captured the Pueblo and brought it in to North Korea. I don't know if you remembered it or not or ever thought about it. Well, we got the pictures of that and, and even got the pictures of a Russian officer walking on the gangplank. Why this was the next day. Why I remember it so is that I was the individual that put Mr. Weeks in the aircraft and, and sent him out on his mission and made a successful mission. And, uh, one bad thing though, coming back down below South Korea between there and Japan, our battleships launched their vehicles and started firing. They see, uh, we flew on radio silence. All of our pilots flew on radio silence, period. And, of course, they were going so fast they couldn't move up and down but evidently they got, uh, word back real quickly by mashing the scrambler, a button on the inside of the aircraft. I don't know that, I never was told that, but CIA got the word quick like that, but they never could shoot him down anyway, and they have never, never. They've had so many thousands and they never been shot down yet. I stayed with them until 19 and 69 before I left there. And uh, course I won't go into anything else because I'm not prepared with my information here, but thank you very much.